"There's a good reason and a bad reason companies are doing [more corporate branding]," said Robert Passikoff, founder of the consulting firm Brand Keys. The good reason is corporate branding is more cost efficient, he said. "The bad reason is that it's much easier to do [corporate branding] because the categories where multibrand companies are competing are turning more and more into commodities and trying to brand on the basis of any real differentiation has gotten tougher and tougher."
Details of how Unilever will play up its corporate brand remain under wraps and largely under development at this point, a spokesman said. But one change happening already is that the Unilever name will appear at least in small print on almost all brand packaging, replacing in some cases names of such companies as Chesebrough-Pond's and Helene Curtis that Unilever acquired and consolidated long ago.
"Increasingly, we feel consumers will be using [corporate reputation] as a factor in how we look at brands," said a Unilever spokesman.
For decades, Unilever and its forbears did little to play up parentage of its brands. Similarly, many of its competitors and peers have played down the corporate link. The reason, said industry executives, was the somewhat defeatist theory that a problem with the parent company or any one brand or business could taint the entire lineup if the corporate link became too clear with consumers.
But in a presentation to investors last month, Unilever Co-Chairman Niall FitzGerald turned the theory on its head. Although corporate reputations generally "have never been at such a low ebb," he said, Unilever, by contrast, enjoys a strong reputation that it should take advantage of, he said. "We believe the Unilever name would add real strength across all aspects of our business through association with our consumer brands." The company has no plans to put media support behind a corporate brand-building initiative.
"I think part of [the global industry trend] is the L'Oreal effect," said Brad Kirk, VP-marketing and sales, Andrew Jergens Co., noting that L'Oreal's success in stamping its corporate brand across a wide range of sub-brands and categories is making competitors take note. "Some of it has to do just with the cost of building a new brand. [With a corporate brand] you can launch new stuff at a lower risk." After operating for more than a decade in the U.S. under the name of the acquired Andrew Jergens Co., the Japanese company is changing the unit's name to Kao Brands and preparing a corporate branding initiative.
P&G, a global rival of Kao, L'Oreal and Unilever, also inched toward corporate branding two years ago with its Brandsaver program in the U.S. The program combines a 10-times-a-year newspaper coupon insert produced by coupon distributor Valassis Communications and WPP Group's Landor Associates, Cincinnati, with an online Web and loyalty program from Bridge Worldwide, Cincinnati.
SC Johnson in 2001 also began playing up its corporate brand more in ads from Interpublic Group of Cos.' Foote, Cone & Belding, Chicago, featuring Sam Johnson, patriarch of the family company. And J&J, despite its considerable decentralization, last year sponsored a multibrand, corporate-branded interactive quiz on ABC's "The View," and plans to use the format twice more in 2004.